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The Impact of HIPAA on Email Communications — What You Need to Know Before You Click ‘Send’

January 7, 2015

The recent Sony Pictures hack exposed embarrassing emails, unreleased intellectual property and plenty of passwords, social security numbers and financial data — but it was also a giant HIPAA violation. In addition to unencrypted spreadsheets full of sensitive medical data, the hackers leaked an HR exec’s memo about the special needs and diagnosis of an employee’s child.

While we don’t yet know the cost of Sony’s myriad of security failures, the medical details of many Sony employees and their families now exist on the Internet, where it will likely stay available for the foreseeable future.

The Sony hack has taught us plenty of information security lessons, but one of the stickiest is the importance of protecting protected health information (PHI). We’ve already written about the reasons Sony should have used client-side email encryption, but HIPAA compliance is yet another compelling reason to encrypt your email messages.

The Need for HIPAA Compliant Email

If you’re new to the world of HIPAA compliant email, the idea of safely sending messages and files to your patients, other health providers and business associates can seem overwhelming at first. While any professional email should be approached with mindfulness of data security and awareness of the threats to your email privacy, from hacking to phishing, businesses that deal with PHI must be extra vigilant to make sure their communications are compliant with HIPAA and HITECH. After all, a HIPAA violation is as easy as accidentally sending an email to the wrong recipient, and can lead to fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While HIPAA compliant email doesn’t need to be rocket science, the stakes facing the medical community are pretty high. Consumers want more and easier access to their personal health data, but have greater demands when it comes to privacy.

Protecting Patient Privacy In the Digital Age

Any organization that handles PHI (known as a “covered entity”), from health providers such as doctors, nurses, chiropractors, pharmacies and nursing homes to businesses that provide health plans like HMOs, company health benefits and government programs like Medicare — as well as all of their business associates — needs to ensure that their email solutions are HIPAA compliant. And it’s not just corporate organizations – state and local governments, universities, and non-profits also fall under HIPAA and must protect PHI.

Since the introduction of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act in 2009, it seems that the demand for greater digital access to health data is at odds with the HIPAA Privacy Rule, which demands that a patient’s past, present and future PHI be accessible only to authorized recipients. One of the goals of HITECH was to spur adoption electronic health records (EHRs) for patients and health information exchanges (HIEs) to help doctors share patient data. If your ophthalmologist recently asked you to sign up for an online patient portal, that’s HITECH in action.

But another HITECH provision put many covered entities on notice: where prior to HITECH, $250,000 was the maximum annual penalty for a HIPAA violation, that threshold has moved up to $1.5 million. This presents the medical community with the puzzle of how to increase digital access to data without compromising patient privacy.

The Importance of Encryption in HIPAA Compliant Email

The challenges facing healthcare data security, from data thieves and “hacktivists” targeting hospitals to user error and technology adoption, make HIPAA compliant email more important than ever. But what makes an email HIPAA compliant?

One of the most important steps any business handling PHI should take is enabling email encryption. Encryption uses a complex cipher algorithm to render your data unreadable to anyone without the necessary credentials (or the encryption key). In short, if a cybercriminal cracks into an email you send to a patient or insurance company, they won’t be able to use that data unless they also get ahold of your encryption key.

There are a few options when it comes to email encryption. Many hospitals, healthcare providers and insurance companies deploy portal solutions that use Transport Layer Security (TLS) to encrypt messages. In these scenarios, patients and other providers establish and maintain a separate account for a portal where they can exchange sensitive information. While these solutions do provide for HIPAA compliance, their user experience tends to be clunky and frustrating. At one time or another we’ve all forgotten our username or password and been locked out of our health or financial data.

At the end of the day, employees prefer to use the applications they’re used to — including their email service providers. Newer email encryption solutions are able to integrate with the email service you’re already using to provide a seamless, easy-to-use user experience with powerful client-side encryption.

Virtru Pro provides HIPAA compliant email without hassle for either the sender or receiver. Virtru Pro is a plug-in that works with your current email service, like Gmail, to encrypt your email messages and attachments, and ensures that only the intended recipient can read them. In addition, Virtru Pro allows you to revoke any secured email sent with Virtru at any time and limit forwarding, giving you even more control over who accesses sensitive PHI, and when.

To learn more, download our free guide.

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